Grover

A Dream of Dragons Part 2

Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  A big thanks goes out to Paula for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Cathy who pre-read this. Any remaining errors, or mistakes are mine!   Enjoy!

PS: It's been brought to my attention that others have helped with this one too. Please accept my apologies for forgetting to credit the wonderful help you've given me, Hope, Janice and others! Thank you! 

A Dream of Dragons Part 1

Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  A big thanks goes out to Paula for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Cathy who pre-read this. Any remaining errors, or mistakes are mine!   Enjoy!

A Dream of Dragons

Part 1 of 3

by
grover

Another Cat's Tale: The Return of the Prince

Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  A big thanks goes out to Paula for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Cathy who pre-read this. Any remaining errors, or mistakes are mine!   Enjoy!

Another Cat’s Tale: The Return of the Prince

By
Grover
05/23/2008

    It had been so many years since he had last entered the court of the Queen. Proudly with his head and tail held high, he ignored the useless chaff that hung about seeking favors from their betters. He had little respect for these courtiers who had never been entrusted with the most sacred of all duties. Being feline, all were of course Royalty, Princes and Princesses every last one, but there was only one Queen. Not all had her confidence to be ‘awakened’ while abroad in the Middle Kingdom.

Survivors

Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  As always my thanks go out to Holly for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Paula who for some reason puts up me and my insane ranting about story ideas, Thanks Love! Any remaining errors, or mistakes are mine! Sometime back a good friend told me of her laboring back from the bus stop during the winter. This is what my imagination made of that tale.  Enjoy!

Survivors

A Dog's story

Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  As always my thanks go out to Hope and Holly for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Paula who for some reason puts up me and my insane ranting about story ideas, Thanks Love! Any remaining errors, or mistakes are mine! Sometime back I wrote a story based on our cat. My loved one challenged me that since I had written one about the cat, it was the dog's turn. Well, here is my best shot at it, Enjoy!

Good night Grace

 Disclaimer: This is fiction. All the characters and events portrayed here are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely accidental and unintentional  As always my thanks goes out to Holly for helping proof and generally make this readable. Another big thanks goes to Paula who for some reason puts up me and my insane ranting about story ideas, Thanks Love! Any errors, or mistakes are mine alone so with that in mind, enjoy! 

Goodnight Grace

By

Grover

Heroes of Justice Conclusion.

Welcome, true believers or not, to the last and final part of my epic, first, full length novel Heroes of Justice. It has been one heck of an experience. I owe so much to all of you who offered encouragement and help in the 18 months it took me to complete this thing. The list of those whom have helped at one time or another is a long one; Janet Nolan, Hope, Jamie, Sephrena Miller, Catherine Linda Michel, and of course the wonderful Holly Happy Hart. My spouse the ever understanding Paula was always accepting of my strange rants about plot, fights, powers and the arcane world of gaming. My the good Lord always bless gamer chicks!!!! Now dear friends, wherever you are, pull out your character sheets, the holy dice of the deities of your choice and lets get started. Game On!

Heroes of Justice Part 3

What you again? Reading the first two parts hasn’t chased you away? Ok, I must be doing something right! First the stuff you all know. This is fiction boys and girls. No person, place or thing is meant to be represented by what I’ve written. If I have, it is completely unintentional. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. For those who might recognize bits and pieces of what I’ve written, you are thanked for the fun we have all had gaming throughout the years. The rest of you who have offered encouragement and support by your comments and PM’s are thanked profusely! Big thanks goes out to Holly Happy Hart, Sephrena Miller, and Catherine Linda Michel for all that and more. Now I guess you want read this thing, huh? It’s Show Time!

Heroes of Justice: Part Three
by
Grover

Interlude:

    Slowly swinging around in the expensive executive style office with brandy snifter in hand, Persuader smiled at the man dressed in ULTIMATE blue entering the office atop the New Riverside Federal building.

    Startled, the high ranking officer went for his side arm, but stopped upon seeing the big man in red’s sardonic smile.

    “A little jumpy are we? So this is how our tax dollars are spent? I'm shocked I tell you, simply shocked!” Persuader’s droll tone indicated nothing of the kind.

    “What are you doing in my office? How did you get past the safeguards and security?” the man in the battledress uniform demanded with clenched teeth.

    “No greetings for an old friend? I'm hurt. No matter. I'm here with a message for you from our dear Imperious Leader.” He indicated a rather old fashioned wax sealed packet of papers on the large mahogany desk. “Don’t worry.  I’m sure they’ll self-destruct or something equally dramatic after you read them. No need to worry that anyone here will learn of your bargain.” Persuader stood.

    Finding his voice, the owner of the office declared, “It was never part of any bargain for any of you just to appear here.”

    Smiling Persuader answered, “Perhaps you can bring that up to our Beloved Tyrant for Life’s attention the next time you see him. As for me, I wouldn’t want to chance something like that, but that’s just me, you understand. On a personal note, I was also given a verbal message to pass along.”

    After making a show of clearing his throat, and taking an exaggerated theatric pose, he pronounced, “And I quote, ’If you happen to more than entertain those ideas about turning double-agent, just remember we know where your family lives and can get to them just as easily as we got though the so-called protections of your office at ULTIMATE.’ End quote” the man in red finished.

    Dismayed, the man who’d thought he had the last word in secure offices watched a glowing arch of rainbow colors appear. With a sardonic bow, Persuader stepped into it and disappeared. As the arch faded, the man in blue gave the packet of papers the same look he would a box of venomous snakes. Spotting the empty glass, he angrily threw the snifter into the wastebasket where it shattered. “Just how did I get  mixed up in all of this?” agonized one of ULTIMATE’s top commanders in New Riverside. Outside, the city was beginning another day, unaware of one man’s lonely fall from grace.

Heroes of Justice: Back to School

    Solemnly, the Major accepted our decision and told us we would begin Monday, so the rest of the week was ours to sort out our secret identities. His manservant was on his way with some necessities so we should expect some visitors. Question had arranged for a cover story that an eccentric had purchased the property, and if asked about the activity, we were to pass ourselves off as employees of a Mr. Roland.

    For Anza and myself, we just gave Twin Peaks a call and left a message that we had found better paying jobs. Tom and Mark gave out a cover story that they were taking care of security for this Roland guy, so they too had it easy. Will and Morgan, well, someone had to have problems! I didn't get involved in it, but there was a thing about broken contracts and penalties from Channel 7 News. The helicopter was Will's, but he was acting as a subcontractor. The real world versus the comics, I guess. They did get it sorted in the end.

    We moved what few belongings we had in our house into storage, or back to the Rent-for-a-Bundle store. That didn't take too long ,because we couldn't take too much back with us, bearing in mind we had limited space available. So of course we went shopping! Tom's trick with using our birthdays as PIN's for our debit cards worked for everyone else too, so armed with money, off we went!

    We had a great time, and Cape and I helped out Anza and Morgan by resizing a few items for them. Of course I didn't need to purchase anything for me, but did buy some gifts and other such. Cape did try to shoplift a few things but I caught on and stopped it before it caused any trouble. I think it was only looking for attention and wanted me to catch it. Playing fetch with a dog would've been so much easier on the nerves.

    Major Victory's manservant with a few necessities, turned into a convoy of fifteen RV's and trucks loaded down with everything from dishes to phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range. A diminutive old Asian man got out of the first RV, and after talking to the Major, inspected our quarters, as well as the training areas.

    While he was doing that the other 30 or 40 drivers and passengers started hooking up utilities for the RV's. I thought Huey, Dewey and Louie were going to lose their robotic minds with all the activity, but after someone thought to include them, they got right to work helping. I couldn't help but observe that nearly everyone had a family resemblance to the Major's manservant, whose name I learned was Chang. Keeping it in the family I suppose, but I was just glad he wasn't named Chung from a small village of assassins in North Korea.

    Proclaiming the entire facility was insufficient, he grudgingly admitted it had potential. The last we saw of him, he was serenely delegating tasks to his extended family, while the Major was busy in one of the RV's, designing the training program.

    That's when I noticed that local area building supply trucks were making deliveries to the far end of the railway tunnel we had seen on our way in. By this time it was the weekend and, while the guys were eager to go clubbing, I was happy to just catch a dinner and a movie with Anza. What can I say? I've always enjoyed such, so why should I change now?

    I asked Anza how she felt about that, because I knew she loved the dancing and the night life, but she just muttered something about not letting me anywhere near booze and men. You think she was still jealous? Morgan had been taking it easy after her marathon shopping trip with us. I think she was evaluating just how she felt about being a girl and if she was going to come clean with the Major about the matter. It could be tough on her to stay a woman for the entire training period.

    I did pick up the history book the Major recommended and splurged on a laptop. Almost as soon as I got it home, Reid, the AI, started berating me about what a piece of junk it was. I asked if it could do better. It of course replied it could and asked me what  my needs were, Darn uppity machines!  I broke down and told it I needed to be able access information on the web and other basic functions, such as a college student would need.

    No that wasn't enough for it! It wanted to wager that, if it could do better, it wanted me to learn how to fly the helicopter. I told the cotton-picking thing that I didn't need better, just something basic was fine. Besides, I didn't need a helicopter to be able to fly. Eventually I gave in, as it kept cutting in while I was trying to web surf, just so it would leave me alone. Geez!

    On Sunday we had a private ceremony celebrating our one full week as girls. I must admit I was a little sad that our quiet hole in the ground had turned as busy as a downtown street in Hong Kong. I did continue the ritual of leaving a plate of food in the conference room at night. When asked by Mr. Chang as to why, I simply said, ‘to appease the spirits.’ That was good enough for him, and he said no more about the subject. Someone had been eating that food but the only clue I could find about who it was one small fingerprint I found on the foil. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ a girl named Alice once said.

    I wanted to start reading my book but didn't have the time. Checking our old email addresses, I found them either unused or taken by someone else so no help there. Mostly we just kicked back, but from the grins on the guys faces, they must've been successful in their hunt for feminine companionship the night before. Even the somber Will, and the recently nasty Tom, had mellowed out and were upbeat.

All too soon it was Monday morning.

    Not too surprising, and just as we had thought, Major Victory's idea of  training was modeled on military basic training, with influences from more than one special warfare group. Anyone who has ever seen a movie about military life has a good idea what it was all about.

     That is mostly because there were also classes on everything from first aid to how to defuse a bomb. It seemed Mr. Chang's extended family could provide an able instructor on just about any subject. One of the interesting variations from military training was the science classes. For us strong types it went into details about physical physics, while for Morgan it focused on how lasers worked and their limitations. In short, how our powers would interact with the world at large.

    The classes were intermixed with exercises, Such things as sudden attacks by everything from black clad ninja’s, to hi-tech commandoes, among other ambushers. Afterwards we were grilled about numbers, weapons and descriptions. Morgan and I didn't have too much of a problem with the constant drilling and stress. It was much like our military days, except now we were in much better psychical condition to withstand the rigors. Anza, with her experience as an ER nurse, was also able to adapt quickly, but the boys weren't used to this kind of stuff. This isn't to say they had a hard time but rather since it something new to them, it took them longer to get into the groove.

    Tom and Mark were very mechanical minded, and between the two them they did well at picking up using the weapons and other skills using devices. Will quickly became a master at causing mayhem with his hands and, as he became able to access his character's skills, was a expert outdoorsman. Heck, he was even able to fly the helicopter, despite Reid's dry comments to the contrary.

    This all took time and a lot of practice. However, compared to learning all this for the first time, we picked it up much faster. Skills which our characters had possessed we excelled at very quickly. Others we became more proficient at along a more normal curve, but still quicker than average.

    Getting up at Oh-dark-thirty became old real fast like. The routine and constant testing was relentless. For that first week in hell, at least we had a diversion of sorts. We found out what all those building supplies were for. The astonishing Mr. Chang revealed among his other talents, that of a home builder.

    We've all seen that program on the TV where they build a house in just seven days. Mr. Chang did them one better by building a mansion. Did I mention the hanger, garage, and other support buildings he added to the existing facilities while he was at it? Somehow he got Huey, Dewey, and Louie, our robot sentries to help, along with more of their robotic cousins than I could count. I had kinda suspected that there was more to this place than what we could see, but hiding a small army of robots?

    I asked Reid, our AI, about it, and he said he wasn't at liberty to speak about it. The darn thing was being snotty again, because it had won its bet with me over that darn laptop. What it presented me with was far beyond what I needed. It had more bells and whistles than I would ever use, but he also had included a learning function that would track what capabilities I used and would reconfigure itself to optimize those functions. So on top of everything else, I was taking flight training, but considering what I got in exchange, it was worth it. Besides, I’d always wanted to get my pilot's license, but my hearing had been so far below normal it wasn't possible.

    The Major approved of my cross-training with Will and encouraged it. He even had the rest of us teaching classes, such as Anza and Morgan on first aid and me on what being a trained observer was all about. The new mansion gave us more space and we had what amounted to our own apartments. It was a reward for finishing what the Major called phase ‘A’, which was more or less testing and bringing out our previously unusable talents.

    Going into phase B we still could expect to be jumped by armed men at any time, but we had classes on knowing our enemy, which entailed as much information as was available about known Syndicate enforcers and the mercenaries working with them. We moved into the advanced combat classes taught by more of Mr. Chang's family of experts, and became even more proficient in promoting mayhem with everything from bare hands to those phased plasma rifles I told you about earlier.

    I remarked to Morgan one day after a training exercise in freeing hostages from a bank robbery, that this was very much like the training that Delta Force or  SEALs go though. She replied that, as concentrated as the Major's course was, it would make their Hell Week, where they weed out undesirables and incompetents look like a cakewalk.   

    We had done everything wrong, of course, and were standing in the paintball splattered training area on our way to have the Major tell us just how badly and where we had screwed up. At the same time, Morgan was doing some cramming for a test, tuning her lasers into the infrared spectrum, making them invisible, lucky her!

    I was scheduled for a hand to hand combat class with our dear Commandant, Major Victory. We girls had a chat with him about that 'aura' of his, and he had apologized to us. It was involuntary for him, but there were ways to reduce its effects. With him being the only instructor available for us to go all out with in combat, believe me, that made everyone happier, especially the boys!

    Even more so because, to control that 'glow,' the Major had to be careful of how much energy he was exposed to. That also made him somewhat less powerful, but unfortunately for us, no less dangerous, because he regularly kicked us all around the Dojo. These sessions with him were more for forcing us to fully exert ourselves than any other reason.

    The real combat classes like the simulated bank robbery, were team work exercises. Some were tests in helping each other get from point A to point B as fast as possible, while others involved sneaking into the quarry with full security activated. We learned that all of us were pretty good at sneaking about, but Will and his animal spirits had cornered the market. He'd learned how to call others besides that bear of his. I would tell what some of them were, but I think he would hurt me!

    Anza and I had always made a good pair in combat, and now we added Morgan, with her laser powers. The  two of them were kinda the main fire power and snipers when needed, with me playing safety, taking care of anyone that got too close. Mark and Will were our flankers, with the ever popular Tom playing cavalry and scout.

    During our time of trial, the syndicate stayed active. Although the Warders managed to capture a rather deranged Elf-like parody named Sprite to add to the merc called Cazadora we’d caught in the mall parking lot,  ULTIMATE still hadn't activated a Supersuit team to help with the problem.  They had sent more of their dropship strike teams, however not to anyone's surprise, they did little good.

    By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the situation was still pretty grim in New Riverside. Being the only one with any intelligence analysis experience, I had picked out a pattern that concerned me. The few remaining diehard independents had banded together, and the Syndicate was hunting them down mercilessly. Violence was still happening with depressing regularity, but after checking records, I saw that the Syndicate’d had very few encounters with ULTIMATE’s strike teams.

    The problem was that the few times they ran into each other, Syndicate enforcers deliberately avoided all out engagements with the strike teams. They just broke off and faded away. What's more, the strike teams had been most curiously unable to find any of those holdouts still in hiding. That suggested some nasty possibilities like corruption, within the ULTIMATE organization. I passed this on to the Major and the Warders, and with a sigh, closed up shop for Thanksgiving.

    Just like with everything else we were learning, Major Victory just couldn't do anything halfway. The mansion was less than 3 weeks old, but it was decorated for the season. To call the spread that Mr. Chang and his army of cooks put on a feast, was an understatement. Several of the Warders showed, including Question and his wife. Joining them were eight others who we learned were old friends and war buddies. Later that day we were told they would be helping teach us in phase ‘C‘.

    I wanted to know how many cotton-picking phases this ordeal had! Besides, Mike had been able to join us as well, and he was looking good. I mean that literally! He had lost a good 20 lbs and his limp was less pronounced. We’d been keeping in contact with emails about what was going on here with Major Victory, and he’d been making use of the Warder's state of the art virtual reality training sims, trying to learn anything that could help us.

    When the Major caught us talking 'business' he put a quick end to that. Today was a day of thanks, and all work was to be shelved for today. Gathering the horde for the feast we all ate till we felt like we would pop. The Major made sure that Mr. Chang and his staff joined us, despite their protests. He said everyone could serve themselves, in that no nonsense way of his.

    Afterwards almost everybody adjourned to watch the big game on the TV, but for some reason I was feeling a bit edgy. Mr. Chang's family made their escape and were busy with post dinner tasks, and I followed them to make a plate for my 'ghost'.  Even Anza ribbed me a little about it, but I told her I just wanted some quiet time to read. I still hadn't gotten to that history book I’d bought, and this was the perfect time to kick back. She was just making sure all was cool with me, but I encouraged her to go and enjoy the rowdy activities. Lured by the yells of those whose team won the toss, she hurried away to witness the ritual carnage of American Football.

    The old building where we'd stayed, when we first got to the Hole, had been refurbished into office space for the teachers and others, like my little Intelligence shop. The conference room was pretty much the same, and I opened up my book after placing the overflowing plate full of Thanksgiving fare on the end of the table.

    One of the nice things about being a girl now, was being limber and small enough to curl myself into almost  any chair. I still missed those 3 or 4 inches of height I'd lost, but there were some compensations. In the past I had always just left my offering, but I was still feeling unsettled for some reason. Back home I'd always found escaping into a good book a solace, and, after being run into the ground for the last 3 weeks or so, just zoning out was really seductive.

    The book, “The  Day the Seas Burned: the Story of Operation Downfall ” was written in a style much like the popular books about the D-Day landings and the far bridges of Operation Market Garden. It was very good, and I soon learned why the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had failed. In the days before the bombing, a Japanese mystic, who was a member of one of their warrior societies, much like the Allies superhero teams, had foretold a great ball of fire that would fall from the heavens and consume the city.

    That morning the samurai Rising Sun arrived in Hiroshima to stop the coming disaster. One of the more powerful heroes of the war years, he had elemental fire at his command. Becoming aware of the American bomber, he was too late to stop the plane from dropping its lethal cargo, but he did keep the bomb from exploding.

    Three days later he made another supreme effort that also stopped the Nagasaki attack. The Allies, disheartened by those failures, abandoned trying to use the hideously expensive weapons to force a surrender, and Operation Downfall, the Invasion of Japan was ordered.

    Unknown to the Allies, Rising Sun had, in his efforts, suffered fatal radiation poisoning at Hiroshima and had sacrificed himself to save Nagasaki. The Russian invasion of  Japanese occupied territories in China and Korea that began during this time, tempted the Japanese Government to surrender, but the circumstances of Rising Sun's death encouraged them to think that by sacrificing themselves, all was not lost.

    Well, that answered why the A-bombs had failed. I looked to the index and was appalled at the casualty figures. Over a million Allied dead, and the number of Japanese dead was far more than that. The title of the book came from the thousands of Kamikazes that hit the Allied fleets in waves of hundreds at a time. Even worse, the US and Great Britain had fallen into conflict with Soviet Forces in Korea.

    The US and the UK had landed troops at Inchon which, in our world, had resulted in a divided nation. Due to foolish mistakes on both sides and the refusal of the Kremlin to back down open conflict had broken out. That conflict had ended when their own invasion of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido had failed. It was an unfortunate omen of what was to come just a few years later when North Korea invaded the southern peninsula.

    That's when Cape gently tapped me on my shoulder. Glancing up I saw the wall raise, silently revealing a secret passage deeper into the hill. I pretended to continue reading as a small figure tentatively peered though into the conference room.

    My word, this was just a child! I really wasn't sure if it was a girl or boy at first, but it was painfully thin and had ragged, shoulder length hair that looked to have been hacked off by a cleaver. Half the child's face was obscured, and the poor thing looked and smelled as if its last bath was far too long ago. Barefoot, it was dressed in an overly large pair of coveralls, with the sleeves and cuffs rolled. The single eye I could see was watching me very intently, but moved slowly towards the overfull Thanksgiving plate with a purpose.

    Picking up the plate it moved backwards, as if expecting to be jumped at anytime. Waiting till it was almost in the secret passage, I slowly lowered my book.

    She, yes it was a she… I decided, stopped, frozen like some wild thing trapped in the lights.

    I as softly as I could, “You're welcome. Happy Thanksgiving.”

    She jumped at the sound, but didn't flee as I was afraid she might. So softly I wasn't even sure I heard it, she replied,  “Thank you.” and the door closed, keeping her secrets.

    “BUZZZZZ!” When my communicator went off I felt a surge of alarm from Anza that nearly made me wet myself!

    “Mystery here,” I answered, already heading out, book in hand.

    “Get up here! Something has happened!” Morgan ordered.

    “On the way!” I half-ran, half-flew into the mansion and found the game preempted by a news flash. Damn! The end of the world must be nigh for them to do that! Question, the rest of the Warders and Will passed me running full out to Reid the Chopper, having left their team transport at its base. Will was the fastest way back to New Riverside for the Warders.

    Sliding to a stop, everyone was clustered about the set. A frantic reporter was yelling into his mike over the explosions of taking place behind him. Panning up, the camera showed a typical ugly Federal office building, with flames coming from the building's upper floor windows.

    “That's where they held me. ULTIMATE headquarters in New Riverside.” Mike whispered with his eyes locked on the TV.

    With an ear splitting “WHOOSH!” the flames all died at once, leaving nothing but smoky wisps floating from the upper levels of the building. The reason why became clear as a flaming apparition like the Human Blowtorch flew up, allowing a pair of  black painted helicopters to land on the roof. The camera showed flashes of gunfire from the now darkened windows, and debris rained down from the constant explosions. With a shock, I saw that some of that debris was bodies, as one wounded blue armored trooper fell the twenty some odd stories onto a car, causing it to explode in a shower of glass!

    I grabbed Morgan's arm, but she looked at Major Victory and gave a sad shake of her head.

    The other guests were watching the tragedy as well, most with sadness, some with anger.

Major Victory just stood there, expressionless. Finally, acknowledging us, he said softly, “You aren't ready and this will be over before they can get there.” Throwing his head at our helicopter, its red lined engine roaring as it sped off into the sky.

    “What would you say, Geoff?” he asked a man with gray at his temples. “Extra pilots for the dropships onboard those two helos that just landed following the assault?”

    Geoff responded, “If it’s a mass breakout, yes. A Blaster with fire to trigger the fire alarms and clear the upper floors, while their strikers take out the security stations and free the prisoners. He then secures the flight deck, and the extra pilots land, and fly out the escapees in ULTIMATE's own aircraft. Risky, but it simplifies the logistics.”

    The TV made it look like a war zone, with the streams of tracer fire and explosions. A news helicopter, Will's and Morgan's replacements, showed glimpses of the armored troopers fighting for their lives. They proved no match for the villains who were smashing all in their path. I think I saw Big Red, our sparring partner from the mall, but I couldn't be sure.

    True to the Major's prediction, we could see the pirated dropships lift from the roof a short time later. Playing rear guard, a somewhat familiar large goon leaped the 20 stories from the ravaged building to the ground, shattering the pavement on landing. We could see Will's Chopper and the Warders racing to the scene, but they were too late, as the figure churned into the earth and disappeared.

    “Man Mountain,” someone snorted. “At least now we know what happened to him. Just another brick for the Syndicate.”

    I hung my head as the TV revealed in the strobing lights of the emergency vehicles, just how bad this was. “Well, so much for my theory.”

    The Major touched my shoulder, “Not at all, Mystery. In fact this validates something is seriously amiss with ULTIMATE here.”

    He turned to Geoff, “She has some intelligence training and spotted a trend suggesting a mole within ULTIMATE.”

    He pulled himself up straight. “Colonel Geoff Stone, late of Her Majesty's Special Air Service. Not knowing all the details,  I tend to be in agreement. A holiday, the least capable personnel on duty, and at a time when they are the most distracted. Tailor-made for a mole to reasonably claim they were blameless. It would be an excellent way to throw an analyst like yourself off the scent,” he postulated.

    He then continued, saying  “You were right to call on my services, Major. That operation was as professional as any of our chaps could have managed. I've never liked the red tape ULTIMATE has tied themselves up in. Excuse me, Miss. Officially they are the only part of any government that is allowed to enlist extraordinarily endowed individuals like yourselves. Like the SALT treaties were intended to limit nuclear weapons during the Cold War, it was to do the same with those with meta, or super powers. Of course nearly everyone has developed ways of getting around that clause. What it really does, is limit the resources any super team has. I don't mean secret headquarters, and gadgets from bad spy movies, but like the Major has done here. Advanced training and tactics that usually only a government has the resources to provide.”

    He gestured at the grim scene still playing, “Most criminal organizations lack the discipline to manage this, and keep their activities secret. Those with the knowledge are usually traceable and so events like this are rare. Even you Yanks, and how strange you get during your election years, can't explain why a Superpowered Reaction Team hasn't been sent here yet. No, something is amiss and I agree these lads and lasses seem to be our best bet for a response.”

     My companions and I were nervous about the attention when we noticed everyone in the room had been listening to the SAS Colonel’s lecture. First, all the military style stuff, ninjas and now even SAS trainers? Whatever happened to danger rooms and the colorful life of the hero?

    Okay, that's a stupid question, because I know exactly what happened to it. This was not a game or a good natured brawl, but something deadly serious. We were going though with all of this because we wanted every advantage we could get our hands on. No fair fights, and kissing and making up afterwards as if this was professional wrestling or something.

    No, we were not being drilled into becoming cold-blooded killers, but realizing that, because of our powers, we had more options open to us than other people might. Our training was, like that of police officers, teaching us to use other means when we could, but if there was no other way to keep others from harm, then so be it.

    The rest of the evening was a lost cause, but we did hang out with Mike until the Warders came back to claim him. They stayed, helping find the wounded, and doing what they could. Will even helped with a couple trips to the hospital, playing medivac.

    Mike and Tom did have a long talk, and I for one, was praying hard that it helped. Tom still was having problems with us, but he'd put it away somehow. The part that sucked, was that I was an empath, and could feel the conflict within him. As far as I could tell he just couldn't help how he felt, even when he tried not to. It was just emotions I was sensing, but still had no clue as to why. Anza had turned apathetic as far as Tom was concerned. “Just another asshole in the world,” was how she thought of him. Me, I was struck with knowing he was hurting over this, and didn’t have the vaguest clue how to help. Sometimes life just plain sucks!

    Mark still acted more than willing to fully accept us as women, if you know what I mean. He was polite, but his actions let us know he was ready anytime we were. Shuddering, I informed him that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, not that it did any good! Anza told me he was just being a normal guy, Yuk! I told her I had never been that way as a guy, but she just gave me a kiss and replied, “You were never a guy, luv.” Sigh.

    Safe in each others arms we fell asleep, letting our care for each other chase away the terrible events of the day while reliving the pleasant ones.

***       

    She ate so much she could hardly breathe. The computer showed her something had upset the strangers, but she didn't know or understand exactly what had happened. The restrictive learning functions would only let her access just so much. Thinking back, it still made her shake when she thought about the chance she had taken tonight. She had even spoken to the longhaired one so like Nurse. Well, she had talked with computer before, but that wasn't the same.

    Not knowing why some part of her so missed the hugs and smiles Nurse used to give her, she curled up in a tight knot and gently cried herself to sleep.

Heroes of Justice: Tests

    The Major had promised us the weekend after Thanksgiving off for a little R & R. That’s rest and relaxation, for you non-military types.  Of course it being Black Friday, the best shopping day of the year, you just know what most of us had in mind. However, we were not going to New Riverside. Courtesy of Reid the Chopper, New York City was only a few hours away. New Riverside was just too unsettled right now, and he thought we had less chance of getting into trouble in the Big Apple.

    He didn't know us very well, did he? Okay, nothing major did happen, and we all had a great time, even if Mike couldn't come along. I did ask one of the numerous Changs to leave food for my ghost before leaving. On the way to our adventure I hashed a few things out with Reid. Using my laptop I had a private chat with him about my 'ghost'.

    Reid said honestly he didn't know there was a young girl hiding in the old base. He'd known someone was, but strangely, the computer treated her like one of its own peripherals. What it could tell me was that the base had belonged to a crazed meta-scientist who had no moral qualms about using human research subjects, willing or not. This Dr. Vole had been taken down by the Warders about four years ago. They had, with the help of a telepath, cleared the base. Rather than demolish it, they had decided to use it as an auxiliary base that the heavy handed ULTIMATE knew nothing about.

    Even last night I had felt nothing, using my empathy from my 'ghost', so she either knew how to shield her mind, or had some sort of natural protection. That would explain why the Warder's telepath had found nothing. Reid added that Dr. Vole’s mutation had left his body deformed, and he was driven to try and correct that. Presently the dear doctor was serving several consecutive life terms in prison for murder, kidnapping and numerous other convictions.

    Okay. Right then I made a promise to myself to try and do more for my ghost. Maybe I could pick up something for my 'ghost' to wear that was nicer than an oversized ragged jumpsuit. Having made that decision, I relaxed and enjoyed the flight.

    I'm not going to go into details about our trip, except to say it was a blast! It was the first time most us had visited the Big Apple. We did get into trouble, but got out of it as well. Much money was spent, and many gifts were shipped back to our humble hole in the ground.

    Wouldn’t you know it?  We got our first visit from Aunt Flo!  It wasn’t surprising that we were synchronized, even for our introduction to the icky part about being all woman because of our bond. I freaked out a little seeing blood coming from down there. Anza, on the other hand, rejoiced, seeing it as the final proof that she was finally as she always should have been. There were some emotional fireworks because of the moodiness, and some generally feeling crappy, but mostly our bond allowed us to comfort and support each other. It might've been a better experience if our periods hadn't decided to visit us, but as much as an ordeal that was, we were determined to live this trip to the hilt and we did! Thank Gawd for Midol!

    To my shock, and to the alarm of my companions, Reid and Will had me fly us back home to the Hole. It served as my certification flight, or as close as we could come to one, while keeping our activities secret. Will didn't have a problem, because his secret ID already had a pilot's license, but we would have to find time for me to take the test in my civilian ID. I think though, I'll forget some of the combat maneuvers Reid taught me until after I pass my test.

    Isn't that the way life works? Climbing out of the Long Ranger, I was feeling pretty good. The flight had gone well and I had put us down nice and easy. Reid said Will was a better instrument flier than I was, but I had a very nice 'seat of the pants' or instinctive feel for flying. Then there was him standing stone faced, waiting for us, and I just knew the Major came bearing bad news.

    “What!!!” all of us exclaimed in shock. With a flick of his finger, Major Victory started the security camera footage of what the News services were calling, ‘The Thanksgiving Day Massacre.’ There, on the large screen TV, was me, busily kicking the butt out of some poor, blue uniformed schmuck guarding their prisoners. Just so I didn't feel alone, there was Lady Diamond, and Renegade to help me.

    The problem was, we were innocent, innocent, I tell you! We didn't do it! We were being framed, I tell you!

    Major Victory knew that, because of course we had spent Thanksgiving dinner with him, and were watching the game with him at the time. The problem was, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, we were now officially bad guys on the most wanted list!

    Colonel Stone just smiled as if he'd gotten Christmas a month early. With his hands clasped him behind himself, “Masterful work, my dear! You've given us our first real lead in this case.”

    A little stunned, I wondered just what he was talking about, “Excuse me, but didn't you see that? We're being framed, and now have arrest warrants out for us!”

    Okay, maybe I was freaking out a little here, but so was the rest of our gang. Right, maybe gang was the wrong word to use here! All of us were in shock, and even the ever calm and rational Morgan was indignant.

    The Colonel still smiling insufferably continued, “This confirms your theory. There wasn't a single eyewitness, so this tape is the sole evidence against you. It is almost certain that our mole planted this, and those with security access to do so makes for a quite small list. Question's draconian security measures have given us an advantage. It seems the Syndicate believes you are still hiding. Instead, you have some very reputable souls to support your claims of innocence ”

    He addressed us all, “I know this is a new experience for you, but I can assure you that you are not alone in your task. A group of villains as well organized and trained as these chaps is something we take very seriously indeed.”

    Giving me a wink, “It would be much same reaction as if a group of terrorists had nuclear devices. This is a threat any government would take seriously, for such could inflict unspeakable harm upon the world. I know my companions and I might seem over the hill to youngsters like yourselves, but when we speak, those who know, listen.”

    On that happy note we went off to unpack from our trip and were considerably subdued. We couldn't bring many of our purchases back with us, but instead were having them shipped. For myself, I needed very little in the way of clothing, leaving that to Cape. I did find a few precious jumpers that I just had to have for my ghost. Cape had a great eye for sizes and, although it was tempting to get a few dresses, the child might never had worn them before. So I settled on a couple of jumpers and some cute but simple sandals.

    Anza had been giving me the eye, watching me, and I think she was beginning to believe that my ghost was real. Feeding wandering spirits was one thing, but buying clothes for them? She was developing a blind spot that, feeling that if she couldn't sense someone with her powers, then there was nothing there. Hey, I admit my ghost could be a robot or something else that Anza or my powers couldn’t find, but one that ate like a starving kid? Besides, since I didn't buy much for myself, it was fun shopping for gifts for others.

    That night I left one of the jumpers and a pair of sandals along with my usual offering of food. I was relived to find the next morning, that my offering had been accepted, except for the sandals which had been left behind. Oh well, two out of three isn’t bad!

    Our schedule changed some the next day. Yes we still had advanced individual training and joint team problems, but we were also put to work actively investigating the Syndicate. I had already done some work of the work by mapping out their encounters, which had given us a clue to the mole. Now the rest of the crew was put to work, too.

    Tom's talents had really blossomed under his tutors, and our maps grew with the information he provided. It only made sense, with him being a Batguy like character. He had plenty of detective oriented abilities and he was learning more about using them everyday.

    Mark's Wolfen also had all kinds of useful things that started making themselves known during our investigation. His character's secret ID had been a security specialist. Along with Morgan, the two of them were like a walking forensics laboratory. What he couldn't scent, she could see. You’ve seen those TV shows using UV light to reveal blood stains and a host of other clues? Morgan, with her crystal peepers, could do the same without the use of a lab. Adding that to Tom's knowledge, we started narrowing down where our mysterious Syndicate chief had his throne.

    Don't think I'm leaving out my lover. With her mental powers she was an interrogator bar none. That was just part of all she could do. She'd taking classes from one of the Chang's who was a doctor in Chinese medicine, and he was teaching her how to adapt her powers to the practice of medicine. While not a fully trained doctor, some of things she could accomplish were almost miraculous, since it was entirely non-invasive.  If that wasn't enough, she had any number of lesser abilities, like object reading and finding. The problem was, she was very powerful, and if she used her powers fully, other telepaths would pick up on it, so she had to keep a low profile.

    It was a bit like two submarines playing a game of cat and mouse. They each have powerful sonar that can detect the other, but if they use it, they reveal their location to anyone listening. So instead they sulk, listening and waiting for the other to make the first mistake.

    Of course all this was with some risk as we began making sorties out of our humble hole in the ground. We carefully planned each trip and were limited to what the assigned investigators missed, except for Anza of course, who needed close contact to read minds.

    Back at our humble hole, Colonel Stone was teaching us advanced tactics, and how to plan operations. More to the point, what to do when, predictably, a plan failed. When to abort and when to improvise. He was an unforgiving taskmaster, but he was big on the SAS motto, 'Those who dare, win.'

    “Be creative! Thinking outside the box is the best way to outfox your opponents. The military is often accused of being uncreative and of being overly fond of brute force. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have grown to know you, and you have become very good in an extremely short time. Some of that is due to your unusual origin, but some is just pure intelligence and ability.

    “Any operation is vulnerable to changes, and there is always the element of chance. What we've been doing is to try our very best to make you better at calculating the odds than your adversaries. This Syndicate is well financed and has access to resources that most countries lack. We are seeing signs that it is beginning to expand its influence to other large cities.

    “Recent pressure over the recent unfortunate events has prompted ULTIMATE to dispatch their Meta Reaction Team One. What the Syndicate's reaction is going to be is unknown, but I can make some guesses. Their activities are going to become more public and then after some epic battle, the Syndicate is going to be defeated. This will be done in such a  way that it will leave no bodies, or perhaps a unidentified one or two. Our mole will, perhaps, claim to be responsible, ensuring his rise in the bureaucracy, while in reality the disease will have spread to even more cities. 

    “So Ladies and Gentlemen, we do have a schedule. Before this happens we need to end this, and we are ready to support you when that happens. Dismissed!”

    Despite the gloomy forecast of our instructors, we were cheerful. Anza and I were looking forward to our first Christmas together just a week away. The guys, particularity Tom, seemed happy and were getting into the spirit of the season.

    The Major had provided a Christmas tree, that is if you could call that behemoth he chopped down, a Christmas tree. It barely fit though the double doors and was twenty feet tall if it was an inch! Everyone had a wonderful time decorating it, with even the Chang family’s horde of youngsters getting in on the act. I never did figure out if they were Christians, or Buddhists, but everyone was happy, so why worry about it? 

    Walking back with the rest of our crew, I saw Tom showing Mark a gift he'd gotten for a girl he'd been seeing on our weekends off. It was a very pricey looking necklace. Now I was curious, because I thought he had a fiancé back home, but this looked kinda serious.

    Then Mark showed Tom his brooch for his girlfriend. This all surprised me because they'd been going to this local club most weekends for the last four or five weeks, but I hadn't known they'd been seeing the same women all that time.

    Will had gone out with one of Chang's numerous granddaughters, but that had come to a sudden stop when the elder Chang had objected. Personally I would've stopped the first time she came at me with a sword, since she was one of the ninjas that helped train us, and was now working with us.

    Mr. Chang had an old fashioned view of such things, and that was that. However I still caught the two of them giving each other the look, if you know what I mean. Anza and I had talked about this, but as much as we wanted to play matchmaker for Will, Mr. Chang was a formidable foe!

    I still suspected that Will had gotten his ninja a gift, but was keeping it low key if you know what I mean. Having my own problems with gift giving was keeping me busy. How do you keep secrets from a telepath? One answer is, you don't. I had gotten her a lot of what I thought was cute stuff, that I thought she would like. I tried not to think about my real gift for her that was something special. If she had seen anything, it was just part of what I had planned, or so I hoped.

    We had made it about halfway back to the mansion when Cape started warning me that something bad was on the way. Not breaking stride, I alerted Morgan and Will who were within touch, while letting Anza know with our link. They passed it on to Mark and Tom. If anyone had been looking, we just looked to have shared a joke.

    We weren't in costume, but really didn't need to be, with our military style clothing we wore for training serving the same purpose. Most of us didn't need much in the way of  gear, but the stuff we were wearing weighed the same. Tom, who was our gadgetmaster, had all his toys in the exact same locations on his fatigues as on his costume. The Major insisted upon us being prepared at all times.

    Even though Cape had me in modern looking gear, it had the same characteristics as my medieval style costume. Cape, being fashion conscious as always, had objected but in the end had given in. Well sorta, because the underwear it had insisted on decking me out in, underneath this drab stuff, still made Anza pant every night.

    The guys slipped their gifts into pockets and, like the rest of us started looking for the nature of the trouble. Whatever it was had caught us walking in the open, so ninjas were most likely out, but not so, snipers. Anza raised her TK shield which, at low power, was invisible, while the guys, still acting like they were joking, scanned the area for trouble.

    I had only a split second of warning before a steel vice grabbed my arm and threw me into the guys! Well, tried to, because Cape wrapped around his hand, binding us together. Using that velocity, I swung around and  piled-drove both legs into his face. He staggered back, but then tried to shake me off his arm like a bug!

    I heard the sounds of the others in combat, but was so busy holding on to Mr. Shaky Hands, I couldn't say anything. Whee! What a ride!

    Mark yelled out, “Shooter, lethal!”

    Anza more calmly, “Sword, lethal.”

    Tom reverted back to Streeter speak, “Shocker.”

    Morgan simply, “Flier.” She had been picked up and thrown into the air!

    Will grunted, “Invisible.”

    Then there was me! “Briiickkk!!!!” I responded, while dopplering in and out during my mad swings.

    This is where being drilled for weeks on end was going to help, as we all dropped to the ground. All but one, Lady Diamond, who was still falling. A few weeks ago all she could've done was pulse and try to blind our foes. Now, however, she flashed a laser into each of their eyes. Yeah the beams were broad, and so lacked power, because her accuracy shooting at six different target wasn't that good. It was powerful enough to leave afterimages even with protection or with them closed.

    Will reached out and traded places with Mark, who had shifted to Wolfen. With a twitching nose, he went after the invisible man. Anza rolled onto her back and nabbed Morgan, and the winged flier, with her TK. Dependent on his wings for flight, he couldn't fight her and fell limp.

    Morgan snapped off another beam at Tom's electrical foe. She was not trying to damage or blind Tom’s opponent, but to ionize the air between them. The blaster let fly with another bolt that, instead of arcing for Tom, followed the beam's ionizaition trail up and Morgan simply absorbed most it. The rest was unable to effect her crystalline body.

    Tom stepped in front of Anza and, with his tonfa, sparred with the now blind swordswoman, not that it seemed slow her down much. The spinning dervish’s blades striking Streeter’s whirling tonfas sounded like a buzz saw hitting a nail! Even blind, she tried to get past him but with his reflexes and tools, that was not going to happen today!

    Cape and I didn't bother getting to our feet. We flew between Will's legs as he grew to Renegade size just as the blinded shooter put a double-tap into him, right where Wolfen's heart would've been. For Renegade it might have tickled, but he backflipped, slamming a size 14 boot into the guy who had grabbed me.

    I smashed into the shooter, who like all of these guys, was dressed in urban camouflage outfits, but before she could hit the ground, she disappeared! Having sparred with far too many bloody ninjas of late, I blocked the blow she threw at me after rematerializing behind me.

    “Shooter, T-port,” I sang out, as she and I fought. She was using some kind of Gun-Fu technique, using her pistols as clubs while trying to get off a shot. Me, I was seeing stars because she had fired off a shot right beside my head. This bitch was playing for keeps, because the concussion from a shot that close can kill, even if just using blanks.

    Cape had tried to engulf her a few times, but she did her ghost thing and slipped out. The next time she ghosted, I dropped flat and Cape made me disappear. Well kinda, by making my clothes match the ground almost exactly. It wasn't perfect, but if I didn't move, it came close.

    While she looked around for me after she reappeared, I hit her with a sucker punch that ended this little bout. “Mystery, clear!”

    Other shouts rang out, “Esperanza, clear”

    “Diamond, clear!” said Morgan, kneeling near the unconscious blaster whose body was still sending off electrical arcs. “Streeter, break, break, break!”

    Tom rapidly backstepped from the whirling dervish as Morgan's beam conducted the last of her adversary's energy arcing to the swordswoman's blade, shocking her into unconsciousness.

    “Streeter, clear!”  Tom yelled, pulling a canister from his belt. “Wolfen break, break, break!”

    Wolfen leaped upwards, and Tom rolled his gift underneath him, releasing thousands of small globes of a slick lubricant. Wolfen, landing, spun around on all fours like a dog on a waxed floor. His dance partner had a lot worse problems, but with great skill kept her feet, although it revealed her position. With a not so graceful pounce, Wolfen landed on her chest, displaying his claws and teeth, and she chose the better part of valor and surrendered

    “Wolfen, clear!”

    Keeping at ground level, I zoomed up behind the brick, who was matching Renegade in a slug-fest that sounded like someone playing the 1812 Overture by dropping anvils. I used to hate this as a kid, but turnabout was fair play as I whispered, “Push” to Will, over our radio link. With me kneeling behind the brick, he fell, as Renegade gave him a shove.

    To give him credit he tried to kick back up, but Cape and I had his feet tangled.  Renegade jumped him and, after a few failed attempts to break free, he too surrendered.

    “Renegade, clear” Will breathed out, winded from the fight.

    I don't think any of us was surprised when Major Victory and Colonel Stone walked up with clipboards in hand. It hadn't been too hard to figure out who these masked mystery men were, but still, when Question and the rest of the Warders took off their disguises, it felt good to know we had more than held our own against an experienced group.

    Medical help was there for Enigma, whom I had cold cocked, and for Alara the swordswoman, who was one of the Warder's auxiliaries. Conductress had a nasty bruise where a left cross from Lady Diamond had put her down for the count. Wraith, the invisible martial artist and Wolfen both needed help escaping and cleaning up from Streeter’s ultra-slick lubricant.

    I did feel maybe a little guilty, at how hard we'd put them down, but the three silver blobs on Mark's bulletproof vest over where Wolfen's heart would have been, not to mention my still ringing ears, didn't make me lose any sleep over it. They wanted us to believe this was real and lethal? Well that's what they got.

    The Major and Anza used their special skills to heal them, but I was beginning to understand what Colonel Stone was talking about now regarding ability and skills. Back home in the Whatever-Men 2 movie, a skilled mutant with teleportation powers had fought his way into the Whitehouse and could've killed the President.

    Most comicbooks have the superheroes mostly just whaling on each other one of them drops. Even their teams, such as the Revengers or the Honor League, that did have training together were more like professional wrestling tag team than the very tight teamwork and trust of a special operations team.

    From my military intelligence days, I knew Special Operation troops were seen as strategic resources. It is not easy or cheap to find someone capable, and train them. The trainers themselves need support and housing. The trainee has to have equipment and even more support. Everything from ranges and locations that can guarantee privacy, to mock-ups for aircraft, banks, embassies and other high threat targets

    Colonel Stone had suggested that the nations that could, did have Meta-human military teams despite of agreements saying otherwise. Not only that, but here, they were regarded as the same as nuclear weapons. So, like I said, I was beginning to grok why!

    Of course, in the debrief, as our teachers pointed out our mistakes and those of our sparring partners, the Warders asked why we made the choices we had. I got some criticism over hanging onto Question's arm, since he could've just used me as a club. This time he'd been surprised, but someone else in a similar position might not have been.

    When asked what I thought our biggest mistake was, I said it was in deciding the nature of the threat. Thinking it was snipers, we had clustered behind Renegade as the only cover there in the open. Instead, their invisibles and teleporter had ambushed us in a nice tight group. Question had picked me as being the one most likely to do the most damage to everyone else, that he could pick up and throw. Fortunately this bowling ball had stuck to his fingers, but he’d had an opportunity to take out half our team all at once.

    The Warders were interested in our communications method of calling our foes. Switching adversaries wasn't new to them, but using it the way we did, was. Morgan, giving our teachers a glance to make sure she wasn't breaking a taboo, explained that each Warder must have had a plan, deciding who they were going to attack. We had deliberately foiled that.

    What Morgan didn't tell them was, we had a simple matrix deciding who was best against each threat, so we wouldn’t trip each other up. Bricks are one of my choices, but I changed, not because I couldn't deal with Question, but to bring ruin to their plans. Frankly I'm just as glad, because he is one tough mother!

    Then those Sweet Old Bobs dropped their bomb! We were finished! Graduation YAY!!!

    Major Victory solemnly awarded each of us, as we stood at attention, with a small silver pin with the Greek symbol of omega upon it. No diplomas, black gowns with funny shaped hats, just the symbol of his old commando unit and a handshake. He told us we still would be training, but now the mission would take precedence over the education.

    We went off to shower and change for the party he'd promised us. Out of nowhere, the amazing Mr. Chang struck again. He had kept the preparations from us and, while we were fighting and receiving our omega pins, the wraps had come off. Under the cover of a Christmas ball, the Major, using his alias as Mr. Roland, had invited many of the shakers and movers of New Riverside to his Mansion.

    Anza, of course, was thrilled from the top of her beautiful hair down to her lovely toenails! I swear that girl loves to dress to the nines! The problem, was that Cape was all too fond of dressing its favorite doll, me, in the same kinda ways! Admiring myself in the mirror is one thing, but walking around like that for hours is something else entirely.

    Part of our cover was that we were the personal assistants to Mr. Roland. Very personal, if you know what I mean. So we were fixed up as a matched set, with our gowns to accent her dusky beauty, while Cape highlighted my paleness even more than usual. I swear, Cape enjoys this too much, as it covered up my few freckles and lightened my hair to more blond than strawberry. My winter, to her summer so to speak.

    Going downstairs we got Mark real good! He was grumbling, “How is this a reward since I had to work?” His cover, along with Tom's, was providing security for Mr. Roland, so he had trouble seeing just how this party was a good thing.

    Coming up behind him, Anza whispered in his ear, “The reward for a job well done is just another dirty job.”

    When he turned around to make another complaint,  he got his first look at our attire for the evening. To his credit, he didn't fall all the way down the stairs, but the expression on his face was almost worth all the ogling he'd done the last few weeks.

    While he was hanging on the banister trying to stand, “See something you like?” Anza asked, passing him with his mouth open.

    I stopped beside him, “You’d better get that repaired,” flicking a painted nail at his torn tux while arching a brow.

    Cheating outrageously, we used our mental bond to sync our slinky walk down the stairs, leaving Mark speechless. As soon as we entered the next room we broke into giggles! Lin, one of Mr. Chang's many granddaughters and Will's forlorn romantic crush, had gotten the whole thing on her camera phone. I promised her and Anza I would get some of the footage framed. ‘I am woman, watch me get revenge!

    It hadn't go unnoticed by either one of us, that Mark and Tom had to work tonight. Okay, the real security was being done by one of Mr. Chang's many grandsons, no doubt by one of those Ninja types we‘d spared with so often. Okay, I bet someone is asking, ‘if Mr. Chang is Chinese why all the Ninjas, since they are a Japanese institution?’ I had asked him that very question one day after a spirited ambush by his black suited relatives, coming out from behind every bush and tree. His response was that if Ninjas wanted to be a secret clan of deadly assassins they needed to work harder. Looking me in the eye, Mr. Chang asked me, “What do you call secret deadly Chinese assassins?”

    I said, “I don't know.”

    With a serene smile he replied, “Exactly so.” and walked away.

    How could you argue with such logic?

    Mr. Chang, as our instructor for all things involving high society and protocol, met all of us in the front room that had become a ballroom, festooned in Christmas decorations. All of us had been taken by surprise by this Winter Ball. There was a lesson here, of course, that our instructor Mr. Chang made sure we learned. He pointed out the things we’d missed and should've paid attention to, and why it was important.

    If we were part of any organization, we would be depending upon our support people. Initiative on their part was a valued quality, but it was we who would be ultimately held responsible. There were many reasons why they would want to keep things from us, most of them bad. Not all, mind you, because more than one surprise party had been spoiled by suspicious bosses. Corruption, profiteering and infiltrators were all possible dangers.

    Then he moved to brief us about our parts at the party tonight. He covered everything from security precautions, to what if the worst happened, as well as who to pay special attention to. The Warders would be attending, along with the cream of New Riverside’s society, including the Mayor. Also among our guests were the Colonel's suspects for framing us, a list he'd been able to narrow down to just five.

Then there was the ULTIMATE supersuit squad, who would be making an appearance, and just to keep things lively there was the Big Boss list that led the list of possible suspects as the Syndicate's leader.

    We at least had a list, but didn't have a lot of confidence in it. There wasn't enough information to give enough parameters. For that matter, one of the reasons for this party, besides supposedly being a graduation party for us, was to help deflect ULTIMATE and the Syndicate’s suspicions of  Mr. Roland’s activities. Inviting everyone who was anyone, to see just what he'd done in the old quarry would make him seem just another rich eccentric.

    Mr. Chang expected folks to poke around. Heck, he was even going to encourage it. I wished them luck finding anything, since Mr. Chang had built this place from the ground up, using decades of knowledge about keeping things hidden. Even our own rooms had secret compartments to hide stuff that didn't fit our covers. Let me tell you, it is embarrassing to have to ask one the staff how to find that darn secret latch for the second or third time.  

    For our assignments, Anza and I were to be eye candy and hang on Mr. Roland's arm for the evening. Of course having a telepath and a empath whispering secrets into the bosses ear was a useful perk. Even though our days had been filled with studying a book in one hand while fighting off everything from sword wielding and assault rifle armed assassins with the other, we'd been introduced to the social arts as well.

    I was worried that with that damning video of me, all this would not help throw off suspicions, but just the opposite. After all just how many 5'4” mutant, blond, bombshells are there running around? That wasn't as much an issue as I'd thought because, to my surprise, I did have a record with ULTIMATE as a registered meta after all.

    According to the Siegel and Schuster Scale they used, I was an Alpha Class Meta which meant I was as physically fit, healthy and as intelligent as the top 1% of the population. Hah!, I’d always known the good looking, all too perfect, honor roll jocks and cheerleaders couldn’t really be human!

     My strength and agility were rated at Beta, indicating I had slightly enhanced strength and agility, placing me at the top of human potential. On their rating scale, Gamma was for mental and physical abilities above normal humans, while Epsilon was for those significantly above those human maximums. The last category was Omega, whose indicated abilities were difficult to measure or impossible to determine with any confidence. 

     Of course my file was nowhere near my reality, not to mention the complete fiction of my being a high school dropout and drug user. Anza's record was also a fantasy, but Mr. Chang pointed out that a wealthy man like Mr. Roland would use someone like the two of us for body guards as well as status symbols. Even low category mutants tended to be very attractive, excepting those whose mutation warped them into such bizarre forms that they sometimes didn’t even survive the experience of changing. 

    Morgan, who had come clean about his dual nature, was back in male mode as a spokesman for Mr. Roland and would be mingling during the party. Mark and Tom you already know about, but Will would be spending time with our movers and shakers drivers and the rest of the hired help.

    By the time our guests started arriving I had worked myself up pretty good. I'd always been a wallflower at best, and a nerdy geek with my nose buried in a book at the worst. Anza however, had always dreamed of the being the girl at the prom, and she wasn't going to let me ruin the closest thing she'd ever had to one. I promised her I would behave and try to have fun, but this was way outside my comfort zone!

    After awhile I calmed down, being too busy to freak out much. My control of my empathy powers was much better and, looking over the crowd, it was interesting to see their emotions interact with each other. It was clear who liked whom and who didn't. Those who were here to snoop were easy to pick out, and I passed this to Mr. Chang so he could assign a 'handler' to the wanna be spies.

    When the ULTIMATE  Reaction Team One made their entrance we gave them a proper greeting. Number One was the leader and she was dressed in her usual gold and silver powered armor.

Number Two was a well muscled man attired in an ULTIMATE dress uniform modified to allow more flexibility and make allowances for his array of martial arts weapons.

    The next member was an almost painfully slim young man similarly dressed. Number Three was bald by choice, which made him stand out even more. His listed powers were creating and directing high frequency sound waves. However there was a note in the records we had access to, that thought he could control all vibratory rates for a host of things, not just sound.

    Number Four’s Asian features belied her pale complexion and metallic golden hair. She had total control of her own density and volume, giving her the ability to grow, shrink, become denser, or as vaporous as a cloud. She was the one member of this team it was known that had been a criminal who had switched sides. That was because her weird physiology required her to ingest gold to remain healthy. Yep, that golden hair really was gold. It was an open secret that she was ’sheared’ regularly by ULTIMATE to make up for the cost of her upkeep. You would think they would let her wear something other than that unbecoming uniform, considering the other indignities.

    Their brick was Number Five. I’ll bet you he’s heard that old joke about Number Five is alive more times than he wants to! He was rated in the Epsilon scale for strength meaning he was damn strong. Having the almost expected body builder look, the only thing that made him stand out was the dreadlock-like hair that worked as radiator vanes. This dude put out a lot of heat and some thought he might even have a sort of living nuclear reactor. Being x-ray proof and next to impossible to take samples from, it was anyone’s guess if it was true. Oh yeah, he was also dressed in one of those blue uniforms. 

    Noticed the drab and unimaginative names and uniforms, did you? The bureaucrats managing ULTIMATE did everything they could to dehumanize their so called Reaction Teams, except for a few like Number One, whose powers were dependent upon something that couldn't be made to fit into their cookie cutter mold.

    From our studies we'd learned that Number One had fought quite the battle to resist having her powered armor painted in ULTIMATE blue. In a fit of anger she had given them spray guns and told them to have at it. A product of her own genius, the armor ignored the hi-tech bonding process. The pigments had run off of it onto the floor, leaving the gleaming suit untouched. With more than a little grumbling they shut up, but they used her Team for the nasty little jobs they expected to backfire on her.

    Hearing that, I bet you're wondering why anyone in their right mind would even want to be a part of such a red taped bound anally retentive organization, right?  You would be right! Nearly every one of them had either been drafted by their governments or captured by ULTIMATE and given an offer they couldn't refuse. Join or be an inmate of Darkside Base, the nastiest prison since Alcatraz and Devil's Island, on you guessed it, the dark side of the Moon!

    If that wasn't enough, rumors abound of cranium bombs and other implants to make sure their recruits toe the party line. Nope, I'm not sorry at all to have dodged the bullet with ULTIMATE, but I do feel a bit sorry for these folks, trapped as they are. Only a bit, mind you, for while most of them were railroaded into this, some of them were genuine criminals who’d made a calculated decision not to end up exiled in the most unforgiving place their jailers could find to put them.

    With all that said, they were on their best behavior and politely mingled with the New Riverside Warders. They were carefully watched by their 'handlers,' but the ones I was watching were the ones that Colonel's Stone's research had singled out for being our suspected mole.   

    Major Victory, as Mr. Roland, had carefully reduced his 'glow' for tonight events. Otherwise, with being so close to him all night we really would have given everybody something to see. He decided to bring everything up a notch by having the band play something other than Christmas tunes. Dancing with both of us, he reinforced his eccentric reputation in the eyes of his guests. The alarming thing here, was that I didn't have the slightest clue how to dance whatever it was we were dancing!

    Anza was the wild one who loved to dance, and she'd even talked me into going out a time or two. Besides, Mr. Chang  required us to know one or two dances. So I can't claim I can't dance at all. I'm just really self-conscious about it. Anza came to my rescue by showing me the steps mentally, and relied on my reflexes to fake the rest. That did the trick, along with learning how to better access Mystery the character's skills, because while I can't dance, the character I had created most certainly could.

    From the applause, I gathered we did very well. Be still my shaking knees! If they only knew. If that wasn't enough, my empathy showed a definite rise in the lust meter. Our dance broke the ice, giving us the opportunity to dance with some of the other guests, much to the dismay of their dates or significant others. I can't say it was unpleasant, but I would much rather been dancing with a certain raven haired lass! Alas  duty called, and the room was abound in such interesting guests.

    I was surprised to find that I was almost enjoying the experience. Anza, of course, had long ago pushed me onto the dance floor, and I had danced with the guys during our ballroom lessons. My first time on the floor with someone I didn’t know, wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Black Hawk of the Warders, and Number Five of ULTIMATE, insisted on sharing dances with me. They were gentlemen, and I began to see why Anza had fantasies about being the belle of the ball. This was not so for all my dance partners. One of them tried to get a little too familiar, but I was able to discourage him without breaking anything. I didn’t forget why we were there in the first place, and made an effort to entice those on any of our lists onto the floor.   

    Speaking of which, one of those almost tempted me to break cover. One of our 'guests of interest' was a Mr. Joseph Hyperion. He was a playboy who had arrived with pop singing star Nancy Nitro. Mr. Hyperion owned a Greek based merchant shipping company with a small fleet of ships specialized in rapid transport of luxury items. The vessels being faster, but smaller, could take advantage of New Riversides port facilities with its faster off load times than the bigger ports at NYC or others.

    That put him in a good position to be a suspect, and the way he was grabbing my lover's posterior was putting him in a good position to be a murder victim! I was dancing with a Colonel Brown, another of our suspects when I spied that Greek being a little too friendly with my lover. While I was getting mad, I couldn't help but notice his date. Nancy Nitro's reaction seemed a little strange to me. For someone who had such a reputation as a party animal and a Prima-Donna, she was behaving rather sedately. 

    I was expecting her to be spoiled and temperamental with her date feeling up one of the hired help. Instead, she seemed almost oblivious to what was happening. That could be because of too much champagne and wine, but it did seem odd. At the time though, I was more concerned about the Jerk With The Roving Hands

    Cape began giving me the old, “I've got a bad feeling about this,” vibe. I was really worried, wondering why Anza hadn't stopped Mr. Greek shipping tycoon from feeling her up. Sure, she is a lot more comfortable with the 'girl thing' than I, and we were supposed to be keeping our ears open for clues but this?  She was strangely unresponsive over our bond, and I admit I was ready to try something perhaps a little foolish. Then suddenly out of nowhere, there was Mr. Roland.

    You would think that after being in nearly constant contact with him I would be used to the way he moved so damn quietly and smoothly.  It was if he had just materialized out of nowhere. Sometimes I didn't know what intimated me the most, him being acknowledged as one of the most powerful supersuits on the planet, or the close to 80 years of martial arts training he had under his belt. Maybe the length of time he'd been studying didn't matter, but part of me suspected that more than a few of his amazing abilities came more from what he'd learned than what any mad scientist had done to him.

    With a smile, he cut in, interrupting Mr. Hyperion's far too damn dirty dancing. My blood ran cold for an instant, because I saw the glance the two bull elephants exchanged. Mr. Roland, as I'd said before, was about 6'4”, but Joshua Hyperion was just as impressively built and was even taller by an inch or two. He might not have superpowers but he was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Anyone interfering did so at their own risk and not something to take lightly.

    I held my breath when I saw the nasty little smile he gave Mr. Roland, but he raised an eyebrow and passed Anza to him. He rejoined his date Miss Nitro, but I didn't miss his icy glare following them as they danced. Then very deliberately, his eyes met mine. I can't exactly tell you what I felt, but came to understand the fight or flee reflex all too well in the instant when my power did read him. Yuck!

Trying not to look like the jealous lover, I waited till the music stopped and nudged Anza towards the bathrooms. Normally I would expect my saucy lover to have been ready to remove a certain Greek's hand along with any other appendage that she felt was offensive. What do I get?

    Anza, in a daze just waited her turn for the facilities and calmly repaired her makeup as if nothing happened!

    Speaking to her silently using our bond/link, “Hey Anza! Are you alright? Was he trying to do something?”

    Dazed and spacey, she responded, “Oh yeah, I'm fine. Trying something? Who?

    Letting a bit of my anger leak out, “You know, that Greek jerk who was probing your ass searching for your panty line? The one you were just dancing with just before Mr. Roland cut in? Hello?

    She shook her head, and sent back a confused, “He did?

    Of course at that point I was ready to go out and break some fingers, but between not wanting to leave my lover, who acted if she'd been slipped a 'Rope'. (That’s a dose of Rohypnol the date rape drug that causes memory loss.) I had a real good idea who was responsible, so as much as I might want to, Anza's safety came first.

    Using my phone, I let Mr. Chang know what was up and that Anza needed help. In this age of cell phones and the amazing Indigo Tooth, the other ladies ignored us. Not that I had needed them to, for our dear fossil had already passed on the word. Acting with his typical efficiency, Mr. Chang made sure help arrived and we got her back to our rooms with no one being the wiser. She went to sleep as soon as she hit the pillow. That done, I was ready to work out my anger on a certain Greek who came bearing unwanted gifts, and I'm not talking Odysseus and the horse he rode in on, either!

    Mr. Chang, sensing a problem, arrived in person and, despite myself, talked me out of doing something rash. After all, he reasoned, we'd been dancing for sometime and had accepted drinks from more than one overly hopeful male. Yes, Miss Nitro's behavior was a little odd, as she did have a reputation as something of a party animal. Mr. Hyperion had taken liberties, but there was no proof he was responsible for her condition. 

    After being sure I had calmed down, he sent me back out into the battle. I think I covered up my double take of seeing the woman I had just left unconscious in bed, hanging back on the arm of our dear Mr. Roland! Then I saw her body language was subtly different, and most of all, her emotions were displaying a rather profound enjoyment of her current circumstances. Oh, that is not even counting on the link/bond between Anza and I telling me this wasn’t my beloved.

    Morgan?. My mind swam as I identified her. Mr. Roland's emotions were almost always hard for me to read very well. Still, I think I was receiving a definite pleasurable feeling. Morgan and the Major romantic? They had been spending a lot of time together, what with her being our team leader. I remember her saying something that in her crystalline form, his bio-energy field wasn't as noticeable. That made me realize that they didn't know! He was just the type to be attracted to her, just because he could be reasonably certain she wasn't being unduly influenced. She ... okay, I didn't know for sure why she would fall for him. Her being new at being female might be a factor, but I couldn’t rule out it being just because he was a very intelligent man. Morgan had seldom run across someone who was more so than herself.

    Trying not to gape, and keeping my mouth closed, I joined them. This wasn't the time to dwell on yet another complication in our lives. Joining them, I really had no clue she had managed to gain so much control of her shape changing, although upon closer inspection, I could see the flaws. Her shape changing thing was only partially an actual change of form. The rest was a holographic image she was projecting from within herself. She had obviously been practicing.

Taking his arm, we followed his lead as to whom to observe. I read them with my empathy, while Morgan used her eyes. She could see far farther into the visible spectrum and could see raises in blood pressure from the temperature changes. All in all, she made an excellent lie detector.

    Of particular interest were those on Colonel's Stone's mole list. Damning the circumstances that had put our telepath out of commission, I did the best I could with my empathy to gain some clue about which one of these pompous fools was the cause of our faces being plastered on wanted posters in post-offices all over the world. Yeah, I meant the pompous thing! They were all the type of self-righteous asses I hated working for when I was in the Army. Ambitious, and more concerned about covering their own rears than in doing what needed to be done.

    That's not to say they were incompetent, because they were far from it, being drawn from the world’s most elite armed services. The problem was, ULTIMATE’s mission was the policing of Meta-human issues and threats. Since nearly all the meta-humans they had contact with were criminals, most of them saw all Metas as being cut from the same cloth. That didn’t count the ones that were just out right Humans Rulz advocates. You know, the old, “The only good mutant is a dead mutant.” type.

    As much I loved our transformation into beautiful superpowered babes, being part of a politically inferior minority is not good. The good news is, most people do not have a beef with Metas and, for that matter, the majority of criminals are just average humans.
But it was just like the old sayings. “One ‘Oh Crap’ erases a whole lot of ‘Atta Boys” and “It just takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.”  One supervillian can cause one heck of a lot of trouble and, of course, gets all the media attention.

    Since we had first met, Mr. Roland had proved he’d learned a lot more than just fighting and flying aircraft in his hundred or so years of being alive. The man was able to charm diamonds from coal. Putting that talent to work, he talked to each of our suspects, while Morgan and I looked beautiful and bored. That is, scanning the crap out of them looking for a slip-up on their parts.

    Someone else might have missed it, but the last of our five possible moles stood out for me. I couldn’t say why at first, but something about him just seemed off to me. Lt. Colonel Benjamin Hostler was the senior of the three Strike Group commanders assigned to New Riverside, and had a good record, even not counting his driving ambition.

    Colonel Stone had somehow gotten the records for all five of our possible traitors. I’d asked him how, but he told me, “Don’t ask.” Be that as it may, we had studied them very carefully. Comparing everything from the record to the flesh and blood man standing in front of me, it slowly came to me. It was the way he was standing. He’d been in harm’s way far more often than any sane man would dare, because of his ambition. Part of the price for that bravery was the purple hearts he’d earned and the pain that was their legacy.

    I knew there were, simply put, some tough SOB’s out there who’ll look the Devil in the eye and spit in his face before giving him the pleasure of admitting any weakness. And some  people have incredible tolerance to pain. Our Light Colonel’s record would suggest he was that kind of man.

    The problem was, I didn’t think he was in any discomfort at all and that is not the same as bearing with it, or medicating it with painkillers. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became, because of the way he moved. After spending so much time surrounded by Mr. Chang’s dangerously talented, extended family, I’d gotten to see how spending a life time in the martial arts can affect how one does even the most commonplace chores. We’re talking about balance, flexibility, and situational awareness. That made me very aware of how people move. The way this man moved didn’t jibe with what we knew of his records and injuries.

    I signaled the man on my arm that I’d picked up on something. Mr. Roland turned on the charm and spent some quiet  time talking with the ULTIMATE officer. I’d like to say we tripped him up and confirmed it was him. No such luck. What it did do was move him up to the top of our list.

    Thankfully the time came when the clock struck midnight, and all the guests had to depart or risk turning into pumpkins. Colonel Stone came out of his listening post where he’d observed and recorded the whole affair. The inevitable debriefing followed for us and the Warders. I made sure to bring up my suspicions about Mr. Hyperion. Most seemed to regard them as overreaction and just jealousy on my part. His actions, even if it was him, were unfortunate but not unexpected for a wealthy man thinking himself above the law.

    I came to realize that the Major, while he was not in vocal support of my speculation, kept his opinions to himself. Taking that as my clue, I let the subject drop. Afterwards I checked on my drugged lover, who was still sleeping it off. It occurred to me, she was going to be sooo angry when she came to. Her first fancy dress event as a woman, and she gets drugged into unconsciousness and doesn’t remember a thing about it all? Giving her a goodnight kiss, I headed to the kitchen to pick up my plate of food for my ghost.

    Sitting down in what had become my favorite chair in the conference room, I opened my book. I’d reached the chapter about the feint Admiral Nimitz planned to use to draw out the Japanese kamikaze pilots, using ships loaded with as many anti-aircraft guns as they could pack onboard them, covered by a massive cap of fighters from aircraft carriers and land based airfields from recently captured Okinawa. I was just getting into it when a knock sounded on the door.

    Looking over at the secret entrance, I realized my ghost still hadn’t made her appearance. Well it was pretty late. Wondering who it was I said, “Come in.”

        To my surprise, it was Question, “To what do I owe the pleasure at this time of night? I would’ve thought you would be on your way home.”

    He nodded, but I saw him looking over at my offering, plainly curious as to what it was all about. Ignoring it, he got right to business.

    “I wanted to talk to you about what happened tonight,” he spread his hands trying to express openness. “I’m not criticizing your choices or life style.”

    Knowing I was going to be hearing something unpleasant, I crossed my arms. “Did I just hear a ‘but’?

    The big man in red and white sighed, “It’s never good to have a romantic relationship within a team in any profession where life and death is on the line. It causes lapses of judgment and can put other’s lives in danger. Tonight you were willing to break cover because one of the guests was acting out of line with the one you love, all because of your relationship. That could have endangered all we were trying to accomplish tonight.”

    Staring right into the polished lenses of the mask hiding his eyes, “Yes, I was going to interfere, but break cover?  No. My reactions would‘ve been quite in character and, while it would’ve made a scene, our cover would still be intact. After all it is already known to anyone who bothers to look, that I and she are lesbians. ” That still sounded really bizarre coming from my lips!

    “Anza was in trouble. The rest of you seem to think she was just a victim of some guy with bad judgment, but have any of you thought about how hard it is to slip a telepath a Mickey? And not with just any drug but one that is known for causing memory loss?” Snorting, I shook my head “None of you are sufficiently paranoid in my book. I’m not even mentioning the pure chutzpa of apparently drugging a pop superstar as well. Even if I’m wrong about him being involved in our troubles here, he is a very dangerous lunatic“ I pointed out.

    “A rich, powerful, dangerous, lunatic who could bring us unwanted attention. I’m not here to argue with you, but to make you aware of how your relationship can affect us all, not just the two of  you,” he said.

    “If you’re warning me to be careful, consider me warned. If you’re trying to suggest anything else you can go take that proverbial flying leap into a lake, a deep, icy, cold one,” I told him as evenly as I could.

    Without a sound my ghost made her entrance when the secret door revealed itself. She looked better now since she’d been eating proper meals. Dressed in one of the jumpers I’d gotten for her, she still refused the sandals and was barefoot. It was a measure of the trust I had built between us that she had abandoned some of her usual caution. Unfortunately for us, it was at exactly the wrong time.

    Instantly I felt Question’s surprise, alarm and anger. ‘Just what else could go wrong tonight?’ I wondered not really wanting to know.

    She was frozen in fear and I knew she was just a hairsbreadth from fleeing.

    Question stormed forward, “It’s a Vole clone!”

    Cape and my empathy gave me no doubts at all that the big guy intended harm to my young friend. We sprang over him and, using a technique from one of my many teachers, I redirected him back the way he had come. I half expected him to go though the wall, but he spun around, dropping into a combat ready stance.

    “What are you doing? That is a Vole clone! You don’t know how dangerous those things are! They were genetically designed as replacement bodies and decoys for Doctor Vole. The Damn things are vicious!,” he cursed.

    I knew she was still behind me and hadn’t fled, which surprised and pleased me all at once. Carefully I took a step backward towards her, keeping myself between him and her.

“She is a scared child who been hiding here, and the only questionable thing I’ve seen her do is steal some food. This is a child, not a thing. I don’t know much about this Doctor Vole or these Vole clones, but if you try to hurt her, we’ll see just how much I’ve learned in the last month!”

    That stopped him! “She?,” he said sounding oh so intelligent. “That’s not possible. All of them were exact clones. none were females,” he argued.

    “Honey,” I asked her softy, “will you take my hand?”

    I didn’t dared to take my eyes from Question. Fortunately I had Cape and my empathy to help me gage how far I could go with her.

    A touch as light as a breath gripped my hand. I was going to brush the hair that obscured half her face away, but when she flinched, I stopped. ‘Okay time to move to plan ‘B.’ Just as soon as I figure out what exactly plan ‘B’ is.’ Cape extended itself protectively around my ‘ghost’s’ silhouette. That gave me an idea.

    At least Question was hesitating, not so sure anymore that my friend was a threat, or maybe he was just confused.

    “Honey, can you turn in a circle for us?” I asked her, feeling her tremble.

    Unsurely, she nodded and turned in a slow circle for me, while holding my hand.

    She was 12 maybe 13, but since she’d been eating better she was starting to fill out. Not an obvious figure, but she was definitely on her way. After her slow spin she pulled close to me.

     “What’s your name, dear?” I asked her.

    My ghost looked up at me, “Nurse used to call me Dee.”

    I raised an eyebrow at Question who’d had all the wind taken from his sails. Recognizing that she was female confused the big guy even more, and gave me the opportunity to get him to agree to something he might not have, normally.

    “She’ll stay with me for now until we know more. I don’t think she is going to hurt anyone. Is that okay with you, Dee?” I hugged the trembling child.

    “Huh, huh,” she whispered.

    He half raised a hand to object, but he still hadn’t figured out he’d been outmaneuvered yet as we walked by him on our way to the mansion.

    Dee shivered and grasped my hand tightly as we stepped outside.

    “Are you alright sugar?” I asked her.

    A soft, barely heard voice, “I’ve never been outside before with so many other people around.”

    “It’s alright dear. I’m here and I’ll make sure no one bothers you, OK?” I squeezed her hand.

    My ghost just gave me a shallow nod and held on to me all the tighter.

    As we walked, Cape made sure I was aware of the Warders, who had somehow been warned by Question, coming out to see us. They didn’t do or say anything, but they made their presence known.

    All I know is, they made me as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, and I was thinking I really should’ve called Mr. Chang or the guys for help. That was before I saw Will casually step out into the light from the shadows, along with Lin and a double handful of her family.

    Thinking bad thoughts about Mexican standoffs, I walked into the mansion with my ghost. Seeing Mr. Chang and his grandson, the Doctor, as we entered, I breathed a sigh of relief. I should’ve known that very little happened around here that he didn’t know about.

    “Miss Reed. I see your friendly spirit has decided to come into the light. Do you require the services of my nephew?” he asked, formal as always.

    My bad, a nephew, not a grandson. There were a small town’s worth of his relatives living here with us now. I think at times they did their best to confuse us westerners. Okay I admit it. It was after midnight, my lover had been drugged by a power crazed Greek, I was rescuing an abused child from a group of Supersuits, and I was tired. Ok, I give, you got me!

    “Dee, this is a doctor. Is it alright if he looks at you to make sure you’re all right?” I asked her, thinking that treating her as a person seems to be working so far.

    I felt a spike of pure fear from her as I mentioned doctor, and immediately decided that, if Doctor Vole ever, ever gets out on parole and I’m around, he’ll be receiving a unhappy visit from me.

    I thought she was going to start screaming, and Cape and I sent soothing feelings at her, trying to ease the poor darling’s panic.

    “Shhh, dear, I asked if we could. Since you don’t want to, it’s alright. Dee it’s alright.” I told her, scared to hug her for fear she’d take even that as a threat.

    “Anza is a nurse. Maybe she can check and see if you’re healthy tomorrow, alright? No doctors.”

    Finally it seemed, I’d said something right.

    “Nurse is going to see me tomorrow?” Dee said looking up at me with hope in her eyes.

    “My best friend in the whole world is A Nurse and she’ll won’t do anything you don’t want her to.” I looked into her single visible eye.

    She burst into tears, hugging me in a death grip. Not knowing what to do, I held her, as whatever hurt worked it’s way out. Sniffling, and almost hiccupping from her crying, she buried her head in Cape’s folds, which gently wiped her face.

    I suppose I should have seen it coming, but Cape, it seemed, had accepted another into the small group it regarded as family. Closing my eyes, I knew it was my own fault for not thinking ahead. Vaguely, I’d intended to coax my ghost out of her hiding place and find out where she belonged. If it was true that she was a clone of some sort, that meant she might not have a place to go to. More alarming was Mr. Goody, Goody Two Shoes, willing to wipe the floor with her because he thought she was a clone, whether she was a child or not. Opening my eyes, interesting times were still following us, yes siree.

    Mr. Chang had already sent his nephew on his way, and Lin had taken his place. Seeing how the child seemed frightened of men, he’d taken a few steps back.

    “Miss Reed and miss, I’ve had a roll-away bed taken to your rooms,” Mr. Chang said to us.

    Still red faced from her cry, Dee was surprised she was being addressed, but remembering her manners, nodded, “Thank you.”

    Lin helped me get her up the stairs to my rooms, although I noticed that the guys, despite being curious, kept their distance. I was wondering if I should call on Morgan, but it was late and she and the Major had departed together. The mind boggles as to why, but it wasn’t an emergency. All of us needed some sleep, and Dee most of all.

    She was plainly curious about my rooms, but when Will thoughtfully brought up her forgotten plate of goodies from the party, she dug in with gusto. With her stomach full, she didn’t take long to fall to sleep, and I sat with her for a while.

    I did have ulterior motives, for I suspected something was wrong with her. That was why I wanted her seen by a doctor. Brushing aside her hair, I flinched seeing much to my dismay I’d been correct. The right side of  her face had looked a little distorted. That was because the left side was so scarred it had pulled the skin taut. It was an old wound, but obviously hadn’t received proper care. Maybe Anza’s doctor friend or Morgan could tell what had happened, but about all I could tell was it didn’t have that melted look you see with burns. Her left eye was missing, and the shrinking socket had contributed to the distortion of the, mostly untouched, right side.

    Even Lin winced when she saw how bad it was. She usually carried herself as a battle tested veteran, and took things that would make most folks puke in stride. I’ve heard that Chinese culture, as a whole, is not kind to those to whom life had given deformities. Lin gave the lie to that stereotype with the compassion in her eyes. Right then I decided Will had found someone very special, and Mr. Chang had better get ready for the fight of his life. Will and Lin would get their chance, even if I had to give heaven and earth a little nudge here and there.

    Softly, so as to not wake Dee, Lin spoke, “My cousin Doctor Lee might be able to help her, but she is afraid of him.”

    Shaking my head, I replied, “I think it is because she was experimented on by this Doctor Vole. Anyone calling themselves a doctor is going frighten her half to death.”

    Lin nodded sadly, “She has good reason, if he did this to her.”

    Taking a deep breath before the plunge, I asked, “Lin just how are clones treated here? Question is about as big a Boy Scout as they come, but he wasn’t going to hesitate to attack her.  Why? On my world we don’t have the technology yet, but even trying to clone humans is forbidden in most places.”

    The attractive Chinese woman agreed with me, “Yes, we do have the ability, but most nations here forbid it as well. My grandfather suspected your ghost might be a survivor of Vole’s organization, but since you were handling the situation, he left it your hands. Vole was a handsome appearing child, but when his mutation was triggered, it warped his body. Even though it gifted him with greatly increased intelligence and the power to walk though the earth, he became obsessed with restoring himself to a normal appearance.

    “To further this cause he conducted illegal experiments on others, as well as upon his own genetic material. The difference was, he used genes from any source that would fit his designs, including those from animals, and even plants. ULTIMATE has ruled in the past, because of dealing with these demented scientists, that their Chimera creations are not truly human at all, but golem-like creatures bred to be nothing more than attack dogs. Like with attack dogs, they were to be put down out of concern for the good of the public welfare.

    “These Vole clones, as Question called them, were used to provide spare parts for injuries he suffered in his battles with agencies trying hunt him down, and since they were force grown with his own memories as decoys to protect his life, it was as the Warder said, for they were raised knowing the weak among them would be used for parts. They fought for all they were worth to overcome their fellows and for the chance to escape. Some fell to the original mutation and were used as decoys. Others died from whatever modifications Vole made to them while looking for the cure to his mutation’s body warping effects.

    “It would seem that the simplest answer was the right one,” She said.

    Picking up on what she meant, “You mean the disfigurement is sex linked with the “Y” chromosome?”

    “Yes.  I think Dee might be older than she looks.  Likely, fourteen or older. That is past the time the original Vole changes manifested themselves, so it is a reasonable leap of logic to say he did find the cure he was looking for,” she said sadly.

    Angrily I said, “Looks like he tried to kill the messenger. She doesn’t act like you say the other clones did, so she must’ve been more an experiment than the others. Poor little one.  No wonder she was clinging to me. She must be half staved for attention.”

    A little hesitant Lin looked at me, “You understand that a simple DNA test would reveal what she is and, with her scars, it will be very hard to find a home for her.”

    “Yes, Lin I was already coming to the same conclusion.” I sighed again. If I kept this up I would start to sound like a steam engine. Huff, huff, huff, shhh.

    “This is not a good time for this, but if I have to, I’ll look after her for as long as I can. We are about to step into the deep end with this Syndicate business, and if we are successful I don’t even know what world I’ll end up on. That’s not even taking into account that my better half may have plans other then being the 2nd mom to an abused, teenaged, gene engineered, mutant. ‘But Mom she followed me home.’” I joked, rubbing my tired eyes.

    “Do you really think you’ll leave when this is over?,” she asked, obviously concerned about her possible future together with  Will.

    “I really don’t, know Lin. There are a lot of reasons for us to want to stay, but we never had any choice about coming here in the first place. All of us, even the ones I never expected to, are forging ties here. Staying will mean never seeing our families again. For some that is not a big problem, but for others it is. I just don’t know Lin, except it’s late and I’m going to sleep now. Goodnight.” I said as I walked her out, giving her a hug of thanks for her help, “Don’t worry about Will. I’m sure you two will work this out somehow.”

    With a wan smile, she said, “Goodnight,” leaving me alone with my lover and a new responsibility. Snuggling into the covers I decided to let my worries wait until the morning and let my dreams carry me away.

*** 

    On a neighboring hill, the soil churned and a serpent scaled head broke the surface. All night he’d been keeping tabs on Pretty Boy. He gets to go to a big party and what does ole Ripper gets to do? Dig around and keep a eye on the boss’s favorite.

    He might complain but he wasn’t insane enough to flout the Boss’s orders, no matter what those shrinks might have said about him back at that prison masquerading as a hospital. He might be a schizophrenic mass murderer, but even he wasn’t crazy enough to double-cross the Boss, so he’d done what he’d been told to do.

What he’d discovered was that base under the quarry was still fully operational. Closed down and destroyed, his ass! Just tunneling close to it had almost set off some kind of defense system. Still having a fine sense of self-preservation, he’d veered off, giving it a wide berth.

    That’d been a royal pain in the posterior but nothing he couldn’t handle. No, the worst part had been running across those campers. He’d wanted to rend and tear the little pretties so badly, however the  Boss had told him quite firmly that tonight, he was to not touch so much as a hair on anyone’s head, or else. It’d been so very hard to slither away and leave them be. Ever since his accident and since he’d been twisted into his present, hideous form, the only real pleasure he’d had was ripping the pretty ones.

    With a flick of his snake-like tongue, he scented the air one last time before burrowing back into the earth. Who would’ve guessed that Clint James, Doctor of herpetology would be spending his nights living as a reptile, rather than studying them?

***  

Heroes of Justice Part 2

Hello again! I’m glad that you came back. The characters and players mentioned here have had their names changed to protect the guilty and above all, for privacy. The story was not written for profit, but for fun and as therapy for the afflicted. I, the author, reserve all rights for posting and publishing this work, and will accept the credits due, as well as the blame.

If any of the players and friends from whom I have shamelessly stolen dialogue and great ideas read this, know that you are thanked for the great times we had while playing, and if your character has been changed or misrepresented here, it is all my fault!This story is based on twenty some-odd years of playing, and eventually game-mastering, role-playing-games such as “Dungeons and Dragons”, just to mention the most widely known.

Gift of Time

Gordon did not know what to think when Dave first walked in with Simon. He had been looking forward to cooling out with the guys after yet another unpleasant week. Working temporary jobs was rarely nice, but he was still unable to find anything else. His times spent with the guys were one of the few ways he got to escape real life, if only for just a few hours.